Sunday, January 24, 2010

Life in Kasese

Kasese – Week One

Kasese is located in the foothills of the Rwenzori mountain range that provides a gorgeous backdrop. However, Kasese is one of the poorest districts in the country with 60-70% of the population living below poverty line, i.e. making less than $1 a day. By far the majority of the population is Christian, but there is also a sizable segment of Muslims. There are about half a dozen Indian families, all of them in some sort of small business.

I live in a neighbourhood called Kamaiba. Walking from there to and from work has given me some understanding of the town. At street corners and particularly at major intersections there are the ever-present boda bodas (motorbike taxis) with young Ugandan men looking for customers. There are also bicycle taxis that offer cheaper fares. A ride on the boda boda from my apartment to office, usually a 20-minute walk, costs 1,000 Ugandan shillings, approximately 50 cents.

Like in India, Bangladesh and other developing countries, mobile phones have taken over this society and land lines are unheard of. One of the first piece of advice I was given was to get myself a mobile. Without mobiles life here would be unthinkable. This is what accounts for the proliferation of dozens of businesses offering mobile phones and related products and services. Every block in the town has at least one and often more than two or three such businesses. Some of them also offer other services like photo copying, typing and computer repairs.

Kasese’s streets are also full of all kinds of shops – milk and bread, fruits and vegetables, groceries, household items, motorbike and bicycle accessories, clothing and pharmacies. If you are looking for a tailor, all you have to do is to go to the main market and you will find several tailors on the side walk with hand-operated sewing machines ready to give you instant service.
There are a number of restaurants, a few of them, more expensive ones, offer menus featuring Ugandan as well as their version of Indian and Western dishes. There are a few Internet Cafes, most in extremely cramped quarters with no fan or ventilation. They seem to be doing very well.

The People

Ugandans are slim and short, soft speaking and mild mannered. I have seen a few fat people but I haven’t seen any obese Ugandan. They dress conservatively. No bright-coloured clothing. Most people speak English, but their accents and very soft voice can pose some problems in communicating.

Their family size is quite large – 7, 8 or more children are not uncommon. One of the workers here explained that Ugandans prefer large families because that is a sign of respect in the community. Also, parents fear that not all of their children will live to look after them in their old age. To make sure that at least a few of the children will survive, they opt for many children. But, large family size inevitably contributes to poverty. Despite abject poverty, however, there are no beggars on the streets. A huge difference between Uganda and some other developing countries!

I find Ugandans to be very friendly. Walking on the street, many people greet me or return my greeting with a smile and a nod. Sometimes I find little children gazing at me from a distance and as I come close, ask me “how are you, Sir?” or “good morning, Mister”. Cute!

Like other traditional societies, Ugandan culture is extremely hierarchical. This is reflected in how people identify themselves. Unlike our way of identifying one’s name with first and last names, here people identify themselves with their seniority in the family. For example, I would be called Balouku Navin, meaning the first born son called Navin. Nisha would be Masika (first born girl) Nisha, Shaan would be Bwambale (second born son) Shaan and Neil would be Masereka (third born) Neil.

Uganda’s population consists of many tribes each with its own language, music, arts and traditions. They greatly value their tribal identity. In my very first talk with Peter at KADUPEDI, he told me that he is from the Mukonzo tribe, Konzo for short, and that this tribe predominates in this region. However, in the country as a whole, the tribe representing the majority is Baganda which their current President Yoweri Museveni belongs to. It is this tribal identity that has caused much internal strife and civil wars in Uganda over the years.

One big, very pleasant surprise! Motor cycle driving has not been an issue. Original plan was for me to get training in Kampala, but that didn’t happen; and, when the matter was raised here, I simply said that I don’t drive a motorbike. That seems to have put an end to that matter. What a relief!

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